This interview with Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s director of planning, discusses the recently released draft of the Cambie Corridor Plan, the future of Vancouver and the approach to city planning.
By Erick Villagomez, re:place Magazine
Vancouver is well-known for its approach to urbanism and using densification towards creating a more liveable city. In reality, however, this popularity is focused on the relative small area of the Vancouver’s downtown core and the neighbourhoods immediately surrounding it. Moreover, emphasis is often placed on the city’s podium-towers as the future of sustainable urbanism.
The recently published draft of the Cambie Corridor Plan shows a different version of what the future may hold. More recent developments in Vancouver outside the downtown core – such as Olympic Village – have successfully deployed a mid-rise urbanism and the Cambie Corridor Plan draft builds off many of the lessons-learned from such projects instead of the renowned downtown peninsula.
This piqued my interests in finding out more about what’s happening deep behind the closed doors of the City. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to chat with Vancouver’s Director of Planning, Brent Toderian, in the cozy surroundings of Cafe Medina to discuss the draft of the Cambie Corridor Plan, and what it means for the future of Vancouver and the City’s approach to urban planning.
Erick Villagomez: Before we dive into the content of the Cambie Corridor Plan draft, itself, I want to talk about the actual approach towards Cambie St. More than most people know, it’s quite significant in general, insofar that it’s the first time – since the 1928 Bartholomew Plan, if I’m not mistaken – that a large area of the city, that spans multiple neighbourhoods, is attempting to be planned comprehensively. Can you talk about the significance of this large-scale “corridor” approach and how it differs from past approaches that focus more on developing small pockets of the city individually?
Brent Toderian: It’s true, the Cambie Corridor work represents the largest and most complex area planning exercise – crossing several neighbourhoods and involving a significant intended transformation over time – that we’ve ever undertaken outside of the central area. I’ve also suggested that the Corridor will eventually become the third most significant area of complex urbanism in the city, after the downtown and the Broadway Corridor. Originally, the Planning Department had conceived the work program along Cambie Street as a series of station area plans and that would have taken a long time – six to eight years in total – one at a time, starting with the Marine and Cambie Station area. Not only was that approach lengthy and time consuming, it also, to my mind, thought about the street and transit line in the wrong way. It didn’t think about the corridor as a corridor, but saw the corridor as a series of individual areas. And it didn’t necessarily think about change along the Corridor in the areas in between the stations. From my perspective, you don’t have to choose one or the other, you can do a corridor approach that recognizes the transit-related commonalities and consistent principles along its length, but also recognizes the unique identity of the station areas. And that’s what we’ve done – a corridor approach that also breaks the corridor in to distinct neighbourhood areas, each with their unique identity. But thinking about it as a holistic corridor is an important way to do the job right, in my opinion. So we re-conceived the original program and launched the Cambie Corridor initiative.
The timing of that was important, as you might recognize, because when I was first having these observations – when I arrived here in 2006 – the hole was already in the ground for the Canada Line, and discussions had already started about disruptions to traffic and the issue of compensation for businesses. That was at the top of everyone’s mind. Adding to that, we didn’t have the resources available to do the corridor work well, so this made it a bad time to start the program properly. So, I’ve often been asked why we waited until the Canada Line was open to initiate it. Well, the first reason is that we were re-conceptualizing the program, and needed to make the proper team resources available. Reason two was that I tend to believe that if you want to have the right public dialogue on a corridor you either need to do it before you dig the hole, or after the hole is finished. It’s very hard to have the right public dialogue while the hole is open and everyone wants to talk about issues of disruption, compensation etc. instead of land use.
So, it made sense to wait until the Canada Line was open, and I’ve half-joked that I don’t want to make a habit of doing it that way – infrastructure first, and then land-use planning. But I will say that the public dialogue that we’ve had around the corridor since the Canada Line has opened has been pretty positive and a special kind of dialogue because the infrastructure is there. It’ s being used. It’s being enjoyed. It has transformed the way people think about the corridor. Whereas, usually when you’re having these hypothetical discussions with the public about land-use changes relative to infrastructure that isn’t there yet, that can be a very tough conversation to have. It can be a challenge for the community to conceptualize what the corridor is going to be like after the infrastructure. They tend to think of it as an extension of how it was before, and that’s not usually true. It’s a transformation. Putting significant infrastructure in, like the Canada Line, transforms things. So I think we’ve had a relatively positive and very healthy discussion about the corridor that’s been helped by the fact that the Canada Line is so successful already.
Villagomez: I’d like to come back to the issue of planning land-use after transit is in place a little bit later. But first, I’d like to touch upon the idea of systems. It can be said that sustainable-thinking is systems-thinking and this requires making connections across different scales – from single building all the way to regional systems….
Villagomez: …and, as well across different disciplines – ecology all the way through architecture and urban design, etc. So the “corridor” approach to Cambie seems to be a step in this direction. Do you see this type of large-scale approach to city planning that you took to Cambie St. as something that will be happening more frequently in the future?
Toderian: Well absolutely….and although it appears at first to be just a step forward, because it moved from station area planning to corridor planning, in fact it’s a psychological step beyond that. We’re seeing the corridor work as a way of significantly educating ourselves around transit-oriented planning, in general, across the city. A way of moving from “being a bit behind” in this key aspect of city-building, to being right on the cutting edge, a new North-American “best practice”. And as we conceptualize this corridor, we’re thinking ahead about how it relates to the entire corridor structure of the city. That’s going to serve us well once we move into doing a new physical plan for Vancouver – something that’s been called for over the last few years, and I’m very keen to initiate. So, the corridor program is a bridge, if you will….a bridge from just focusing on local areas and local area plans, to being able to think at those multiple scales. The regional scale, the city scale, the district and neighbourhood scale, the street scale, the block scale, the building scale and even the sidewalk scale. We tend to think that way, but our plans don’t always illustrate that. Our plans can appear disconnected, even if our urban thinking is holistic and multi-level.
Villagomez: That disconnect is definitely an issue that plagues most, if not all, municipalities….
Toderian: It is indeed. You also mentioned connections across disciplines, and this is a very important aspiration for us as well. We’ve prided ourselves for years in Vancouver, on integrating land use and transportation thinking better than most cities, and I think this Plan takes that to a new level. Beyond that though, this Plan signifies for us a new definition for success – the robust integration of land use, transportation and energy. In particular, district and neighbourhood energy sources and systems that take heating off-the-grid, on top of building and transportation-related energy use considerations. This is a huge piece to our “Greenest City” aspirations, building on the great success and lessons from the neighbourhood energy utility at the Olympic Village. Further beyond that, our corridor thinking worked very hard to integrate affordable housing aspirations, social diversity, job space integration, cultural and community amenities, landscape and public realm design, economic analysis and challenges to building viability such as land assembly, servicing and infrastructure, etc – so many disciplines, and in our worst moments, “silo’s”, fully integrated in this process into a holistic urbanism. That’s where we want to be, what we want to replicate, in all our work. We’ve been good at that for a long time, but if anything, we want to be better.
Villagomez: Now let’s get into the draft, itself – the Cambie Corridor Plan, that was recently released. Although the overarching goals won’t necessarily surprise people familiar with Vancouver’s planning strategy, insofar that it focuses on densification as a key aspect of creating a livable and sustainable city, there are a few things that will surprise people. I’m referring, more specifically, to the dominantly mid-rise built form of the corridor. Now, in a city known for its podium-towers , the Cambie Corridor Plan describes quite a different approach. Can you speak to how and why this built form – vs others – was decided upon as being the “right” choice for the corridor?
Toderian: Well, this has been a thought process over several years. Vancouver has gotten a great deal of attention for its podium-point tower building type, but in truth we’ve been doing mid-rise forms very well for years along our corridors, like Broadway. I tend to think of specific projects like The Rize and Crossroads, at the corner of Cambie and Broadway. We have as much innovation in our mid-rise form as in our high-rise form, as possibly even more, but the podium-point tower tends to get all the attention.
What we’ve done in the Cambie Corridor program is built on the success of those mid-rise prototypes: particularly, building on the urban form success of Athletes Village – the Olympic Village – and we’re translating that into a predominant urban form for the city……Vancouverism 2.0, really. Because what we’re talking about is a clarity that the majority of the transformation of the city in the future, outside of the central area, will be in low- to mid-rise forms. That the tower form will be the exception, not the rule. It will be strategically used in places like right at key station areas and on special sites within neighbourhood centres. I say “special sites” deliberately – for example in our Norquay neighbourhood centre, which is a large land area, there really is just is one site, strategically near the middle, that would have tower form. The rest of the centre would have low to mid-rise. So even in our neighbourhood centres, the dominant forms will be low to mid-rise with towers being the exception.
Similarly, we might consider towers at key strategic intersections and other special locations.. But the point is, the majority of the pattern of change will be in the low- to mid-rise. Low-rise densification in the context of the single family blocks – what I call “gentle density”, in the form of rowhouses, etc. Along the primary corridors, mid-rise of various scales, anything from four stories up to ten stories depending on the character of the corridor. So we’re still talking about very ambitious density, but avoiding that automatic assumption that density will be in the form of slim towers on a podium everywhere.
That’s a transition for us because our development industry, and even the marketplace, has come to expect that densification will mean towers with views. I often hear that’s what sells in Vancouver, that’s what the market expects. On the other hand, our mid-rise projects do very well in the city. They can be more sustainable. They can even be more affordable, and they are more acceptable to the public, who tends to be more negative to height than they are to density. So if we can provide clarity on where towers will be, and by definition where they won’t be, that helps with our entire discourse on densification in the city.
So, in the context of many applications and processes – Cambie corridor being probably the most ambitious – we’re making the point that the majority of the built form is mid-rise. Only at Marine and Cambie, and at Oakridge are tower forms contemplated. The rest is four- to six- to eight- to ten-stories.
Villagomez: You touched upon something else I’m curious about to discuss. Obviously, city planning is a complex undertaking that requires negotiating a lot of different interests…
Toderian: Sure does…
Villagomez:…and you just mentioned some of these other interests. What were the pressures to take other approaches and can you discuss the motivations behind these different approaches?
Toderian: Well, there have been times through this process where I’ve joked that we feel like Goldie-locks and the three bears: where some people are saying the porridge is too hot and some people are saying the porridge is too cold. Some of the public are saying that the densities and heights are too high. Particularly around some key locations where they’d prefer that the area around transit stations remain relatively unchanged – remaining as dominantly single detached housing. And then others have asked “why aren’t there more towers?” “Towers are the assumed built form, so why are we going against that assumption? We should just have a corridor of towers, or at least have more towers at stations, because that’s what the market knows how to build and that’s what the market expects.” So, you see what I mean…the porridge is too hot, or too cold.
But increasingly, I think, as we’ve had this discourse with the public and shown the urban design performance, the sustainability performance, the affordability performance, etc. we’re getting more and more people saying the porridge might be just right. And it’s not about over-simplistic compromise. We’re not cutting the baby in half to make the various stakeholders happy. What we’ve done is listen carefully to all the stakeholders and figure out the forms that best deliver on what everyone seems to be saying, while also addressing our critically important city and regional goals. And that form is not a false choice between single family houses and podium-point towers. It can be in many other forms that provide us the density we need – to lower our carbon footprint, to enhance our affordability and sustainability, etc., – without the polarizing effect of the fear of tall towers everywhere within the neighbourhoods.
Villagomez: Your response makes me think of a study done back in the sixties by a couple of professors at Cambridge University – Leslie Martin and Lionel March at the University of Cambridge – who showed that the same amount of, for lack of a better term, “urban substance” can be configured in number of different ways. For example, the density of a freestanding tower on a site can also be manifested as low-rise, or mid-rise forms. This highlights a debate that is relevant to the discussion of the Cambie Corridor and you just spoke to this a few seconds ago: that of, density vs height. Can you talk about the discussions that took place related to this as well as that surrounding how much density is, perhaps, too much?
Toderian: Well, that’s a great question. First of all, we have had some people say “the Canada Line is a tremendous piece of infrastructure, why aren’t you proposing even higher densities?” And they can be surprised to learn what densities we’re actually proposing. The densities are fairly significant and, to your point, they don’t have to all be tall towers, to be high density. And they are densities across a pattern, rather than just “spikes” of density right at stations. When we’re talking about eight- to ten- to even twelve-stories perimeter block or courtyard buildings at stations, and six to eight stories between stations, that is significant FSR, floor space ratio…that’s significant density across a pattern. And it can be comparable to a podium-and-point tower. I’ve heard some people say you can achieve the same density through rowhouses. I don’t believe that. I don’t think the math bears that out. Rowhouses can provide reasonable “gentle density”, and will be a very strategically important housing type for us in the future, but I would consider that densification level disappointing along Cambie given the nature of the infrastructure along it. Rowhouses might be a very important strategic housing type for the areas within the 5-10 minute walking distance of transit, but not necessarily right at the station or along Cambie.
But Erick, the decision about whether you do mid-rise building types or taller, slimmer towers is usually not a density discussion, because either can provide significant density. It’s usually a preferred form discussion. And I will say, I’ve occasionally heard the lazy suggestion that podium-and-point towers aren’t particularly high density because of studies similar to the ones you’ve cited. I’ve seen comparisons between a tower sitting alone in a sea of green – the so-called tower-in-the-park model – and single family housing density. I find that comparison somewhat deceptive.We generally don’t do tower-in-the-park, which can be surprisingly low density, except historically a minor version of the model in the West End where there are many examples of buildings traditionally having greater setbacks. We do, literally, a hybrid of mid-rise perimeter block and tower forms. We do both, combined into one, a form we’re credited for inventing.
The densities in our newer podium-and-point towers are particularly quite high, because we’ve been moving from a podium of rowhouses to a podium of mid-rise in many urban contexts. I’m referring to six- to eight-story mid-rise with towers – separated 80ft, minimum distance – so that you have the density of both the mid-rise and the towers. That’s pretty significant density, in a form that combines the market advantages of towers with views, and the more ground-oriented, human-scaled advantages of mid-rise. If you’re a “ground person” or a “sky-person”, there’s a choice for you. I personally am a ground person – I live on the third floor of a seven-storey podium, and love my relationship with the street and courtyard, while one of my friends and colleagues, a sky person who loves the views, lives in the tower in our strata. We both chose based on our preference.
That’s a hybrid built form that works very well for us within the downtown, but not necessarily everywhere. I’m very positive and complimentary of the use of that building form in the core. And, notwithstanding some variations in form here or there, such as in our historic areas where it wouldn’t be appropriate, that will continue to be a common building type in the downtown peninsula. But it doesn’t follow at all that this would be a common building type in the rest of the city. That’s a decision. That’s a choice. So, although there are some who have assumed that this would be the case, I think with initiatives like the Cambie Corridor Plan and Broadway corridor work that we’re doing, as well as our various neighbourhood centres, we are putting that automatic assumption to rest. We’re doing that by sending a clear message that tower forms will be part of the physical future of the city but, as I said, they will be the exception not the rule.
Villagomez: Going back to something you discussed earlier during our chat, one of the largest criticisms of the City’s approach to the Cambie St. Corridor is that it happened – in fact, is happening – too late. I even recalled you, Brent, stating publicly that the City was a little behind on planning Cambie St….
Villagomez: …and you mentioned reasons for why this was the case. But causes aside, can you talk more about the lessons learned – both good and bad – from planning land-use after transit is in place?
Toderian: The obvious disadvantage is that we could’ve been moving forward on projects that provide earlier transit support. Of course, the ridership numbers for the Canada Line are quite good, so it’s not as if that infrastructure is being under-used right now. But that’s the obvious disadvantage. That’s why, by the way, we created the technique of using the interim re-zoning policy that was put in place early in this process, during Phase One of the Cambie corridor work program. This allowed us to consider development applications right at stations, if they followed the guiding principles and interim rezoning requirements. That’s because we recognized that the planning was behind, and we didn’t want to hold up good applications right at station areas under these circumstances. This approach has been a bit of a mixed bag in terms of advantages and disadvantages, and we’ve learned from that. It has caused some pressures on the planning program but it has also allowed some projects to move forward. We felt we owed applicants that because of the delay we had in developing the plan. So, that wasn’t perfect, but it was a learning opportunity for us.
The interesting thing about doing the Cambie corridor work when the infrastructure is in, and also starting the Broadway corridor work when the infrastructure is still an ambition, is that you really do see the pros and cons of both approaches. Now, I wouldn’t say that the Broadway corridor is easier. It’s actually tough to be having the discussion on land use along Broadway when we’re still having debates about what the technology should be for the transit infrastructure. It makes it a bit of a chicken-and-egg discussion. The public isn’t sure what they’re prepared to support in terms of density and land uses without clarity around the infrastructure, but how do you make an informed decision about the infrastructure if you don’t know what the land use is that the transit will support? The answer, of course, is that it’s best to plan both together, in alignment, but that’s often easier said than done, with many moving parts that can be outside of the City’s control. For the Cambie corridor, for better or worse, we didn’t have that problem because that infrastructure was already in and we could plan based on that infrastructure. And, as I said, the public dialogue was very different because the infrastructure wasn’t hypothetical. It was a very popular reality.
I’m still intending, however, to err on the side of the Broadway corridor approach. I’ve spent my entire career trying to pre-plan areas for transit structure that isn’t there yet and it is always a challenge, but I think it’s still better to get your planning in place first. So, I don’t intend on making a habit of doing things the Cambie corridor way, but it has definitely been an eye-opening experience.
Villagomez: I can definitely see both sides of the coin. Now, I want to switch gears a tiny bit and discuss the future. As we discussed, with the popularity of the downtown’s urban form, many people assume that this type of development is the future of Vancouver. On the other hand, you mentioned Vancouverism 2.0 being low- and mid-rise – citing things like Olympic Village, rowhouses, and duplexes. Not to mention the laneway housing initiative that’s making an impact across the city and that we’ve only hit implicitly through this idea of “gentle density”. With this in mind, do you mind elaborating on what you see as the future of Vancouver’s urban form?
Toderian: I think Vancouverism 2.0 is going to be a range of housing types for a range of different challenges and contexts. We have challenges of artful densification in single family neighbourhoods. We have both a local and regional market that appreciates ground-oriented units, and so ground-oriented densification has to be part of our strategy. Not everyone wants to live in a high-rise or even a mid-rise, so for ground-oriented forms I’ve created terms like “gentle”, “hidden” and “invisible” density, in the past – secondary suites, laneway houses, rowhouses, duplexes, etc. With these forms we can double or triple the population density within single-family neighbourhoods while still keeping a compatible urban form with the single-family housing.
You know, the truth is that “single-family lots” are no longer “single-family lots”. That’s a bit of a misnomer now. It’s an old term we planners use that isn’t really accurate anymore because many of those single-detached lots have a secondary suite in them, and now a laneway house. So, there could be three families living on that lot even if you don’t factor in the cultural family structure nuances. So, you can triple the density on the single detached lot in terms of population. Or not…you might just return the population density that what used to be there because we know there are fewer people living on single-detached lots these days, with fewer people per household.
So, whereas a single detached lot may have had a family of five in the past, perhaps it went down to a household of two. But then the secondary suite brought someone else back and the laneway house may now has a couple living in it. So now maybe you’re back to five. You perhaps haven’t densified beyond what it used to be, but perhaps have returned the density to what it was originally. Hopefully, there are kids present in at least one of the units so that the local school stays open..
So, we’ve looked a strategic densification in different places and come up with different strategies, and the key message is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all. Vancouverism 2.0 is about meeting our city-wide goals, particularly regarding densification around transit, but with different housing types, in different locations, with attention to context, neighbourliness, and artful fit. In short, “density done well.”
Villagomez: ….so what you’re describing is a density gradient around arterials and other specific locations, that incorporates a variety of housing types based on different contexts.
Toderian: Exactly. So, Vancouverism 2.0 is all of those techniques – that increase in the density of the city in a very strategic way, helping us achieve our goals for improved affordability, green house gas emission reduction and becoming the greenest city in the world, greater social resiliency, better urban health as it relates to urban form and active transport, etc., but not in a one-size-fits-all way.
Villagomez: Now bringing things back to where we began – talking about the planning approaches – can you tell us what is going to happen after the Cambie corridor. You already said that we can expect to see more corridor planning, so do you see things heading towards perhaps a city-wide design similar in scale to the one recently put together by the UBC Urban Design Studio?
Toderian: Well, I was very complimentary of the work that the UBC students had done, but I did point out to them that they had done the easy part. The easy part is sitting in a classroom or studio with a few inputs and coming up with a creative and exciting possible design for the city. The hard part is engaging the public, and all the various stakeholders, in the creation of a shared vision and physical design of the city. That is a significant challenge – it’s the really hard part. It takes time and patience, and proper resources to do the job well and a clear mandate, and great listening skills, not just great design skills.
That said, we do have standing council direction to develop a city-wide plan, and I’m very keen to do that. During the public event last night (April 26th) on the Bartholomew Plans, I noted that the last real physical plan for the city was in fact Bartholomew’s work, so many decades ago. CityPlan is more a strategic plan, not a physical plan or framework for change. And even Bartholomew’s work was more 2-dimentional, not a 3-dimentional plan providing clarity on form and density. In the EcoDensity Initiative, the task was called the Eco-City Plan. We’re now referring to it, in more generic terms, as a new physical plan for Vancouver, a “PlanVancouver” if you will, and it essentially starts with – and respects – the results of CityPlan and the various Community Visions and area plans. It would also seek to address both our city-wide needs and regional issues, not the least of which are the pressures of sprawl on agricultural and industrial lands. But it would not do all this at the expense of the “city-of-neighbourhoods” concept that is so important to us. It would provide greater clarity around what physical change can and should look like across the city, because the more clarity we can provide in the context of a shared vision, the less we’ll have debates on a project-by-project, proposal-by-proposal basis when everybody is concerned about a project setting a precedent. But as you can imagine, you don’t do that exercise unless you are able to do it properly and successfully. It will take the right resources, it will take the proper mandate, and I’m hoping to see that materialize in the next few years.
Getting back to the Cambie Corridor, although the corridor approach is a step up from a station-by-station area planning approach, I wouldn’t necessarily replace station-by-station with corridor-by-corridor because that can still take an awfully long time to provide clarity for the entire physical city. And again, it feels too piece-mail to me, when the bigger picture relationships could be embraced. I think our next step should be to look at transit-oriented planning across the entire city, and corridors and centres planning across the entire city. Whether we do that in the context of a city-wide plan, which would be my initial preference, or in some other way, remains to be seen. I’m looking forward to discussing options further and seeking Council’s direction.
Villagomez: Fantastic, thank you. Please feel free to share some closing thoughts….
Toderian: I think the Cambie experience shows that we can have a very challenging and creative discussion around physical change in a way where the majority of the public is generally on side that change can make sense. Notwithstanding some loud voices in the process that have raised important concerns, I think the majority of our public input has been generally supportive regarding the evolution of the corridor because of the Canada Line, and that’s a good thing. Often the loudest voices are mistaken for the general public voice, and that’s not always the case. We’ve been listening very carefully and heard from thousands of Vancouverites in the process, and the predominant message we’ve heard is that it makes sense to densify here, it’s about the details of what “density done well” means in this context. This is a good place to be, because we want to make sure that we get the details right and the comments we’ve received from the public – both positive and negative – have made our work better, and for this we are very grateful. Change is critically important along the corridor for virtually all of our city goals, and regional ones as well. How we translate that into a city-wide discussion in the future, that’s going to more of a challenge. But I think the Cambie corridor work and other successes we’ve had in key parts of the city outside of the central area position us well to have that kind of discussion. It’s never easy, but few important and meaningful things are.
Thanks to Brent Toderian for taking the time one early morning to have this conversation over a fine glass of orange juice. The Cambie Corridor Plan can be downloaded at the City of Vancouver website.
Erick Villagomez is one of the founding editors at re:place. He is also an educator, independent researcher and designer with academic and professional interests in the human settlements at all scales. His private practice – Metis Design|Build – is an innovative practice dedicated to a collaborative and ecologically responsible approach to the design and construction of places.